Pakistan\'s Army \'favors Dialogue\' With Islamists Over Blasphemy Row

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On Sunday, Islamist activists clashed with police for a second day outside the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan's government on Saturday called on the country's powerful military to be deployed in Islamabad after deadly clashes broke out between police and religious hardliners. But Pakistani media reported Sunday that after a meeting with the civil administration, military officials decided not to "use force" against the protesters and instead engage in political negotiations with them. Local media said the civilian administration was in agreement with top military officials on that.

There has been no official confirmation of the development, although Major General Asif Ghafoor, head of the military's public relations department, tweeted Saturday that the country's army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, advised PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to resolve the issue peacefully.

Violent clashes

At least seven people were killed and more than 200 people were injured — around 137 of whom were security personnel during clashes on Saturday and Sunday — when violence broke out as police moved to break up an Islamist blockade, which had paralyzed the capital for weeks.

Security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas while protesters burned police vehicles and reportedly hurled stones at security forces.

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Islamist hardliners turn up heat on Pakistan's government

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Islamist hardliners turn up heat on Pakistan's government

Some 8,500 police and paramilitary troops in riot gear launched an operation Saturday to clear at least 2,000 protesters who have blocked a main junction between Islamabad and Rawalpindi for almost three weeks.

Police have arrested at least 150 protesters, according to local media.

Hardliners belonging to the Barelvi sect of Islam have reportedly demonstrated against police operation in other cities, including Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.

On Saturday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered private TV channels to go off air, citing security concerns. Pakistani media is not allowed to broadcast live coverage of a security operation. Coverage was restored Sunday.

Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told the Agence France-Presse news agency the success of the protest was "highly disturbing."

"It speaks to the clout and impunity enjoyed by religious hardliners in Pakistan," he said.

> Watch video 02:23

Violence at Islamist protests: Journalist Asad Hashim in Islamabad

The 'finality' of Prophet Muhammad

The controversy erupted in October, when the government amended electoral laws, including the wording for the swearing-in of lawmakers, who must recognize the Prophet Muhammad as God's final prophet. After protests from religious groups, the government restored the oath in its original form, which was seen as slightly more legally binding.

"Our sole demand is the authorities act against those members of parliament who amended the constitutional clause related to the 'finality' of Prophet Muhammad," Hafiz Ullah Alvi of the hardline Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan party told DW.

"The government said it was a clerical error. We don't think it was the case. It was done deliberately by the West's agents, who are also members of our parliament," Alvi said.

"We will not leave. We will fight until end," Ejaz Ashrafi, the spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Labaik party, told Reuters on Saturday.

  • A police officer wearing riot gear appears to be about to throw a stone.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    Nationwide protests and clashes

    There have been several fatalities and scores of people have been injured in clashes between the protesters and security forces in Islamabad on Saturday. In the southern city Karachi at least 27 people were injured in clashes. Protests also led to the closure of a main road in Lahore. The developments have paralyzed everyday life major cities with violence erupting in 9 cities across the country.

  • Pakistani protesters are seen beside a burning police van which was set on fire by them after security forces launched a crackdown.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    Media blackout over 'violation' of law

    The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has banned all broadcasting for a second day. It argues that media outlets violated government policy by showing live coverage of security operations. Key social media sites also remained blocked. Journalists have condemned the action, saying it will lead to the spread of 'false news' on social media.

  • Riot policemen gather during a clash with protesters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    Goverment acts after three weeks

    On Saturday, some 8,500 armed security personnel confronted Islamists, who responded by blocking roads, throwing stones and setting vehicles alight. Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets. They were unable to gain control over the situation which led to the government requesting military assistance. There has been no official response from the army.

  • Supporters of radical religious party Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah offer Friday prayers with a poster of their leaders.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    'Intolerance' on display in Pakistan

    On November 6, roughly 2,000 members of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakiatn began a sit-in in Islamabad after the government amended the text of an oath for parliamentarians. It was seen as a softening of the previous stance towards the minority Ahmadi sect, which was declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani parliament in 1974. The change was quickly reversed.

  • A protester shouts in support of his party as other supporters block main highway connecting the capital city Islamabad with other cities.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    'Inaction' causes situation to deteriorate

    Demonstrators linked the amendment to blasphemy, a sensitive charge in conservative, Muslim Pakistan. There have since been calls for the resignation of law minister, Zahid Hamid. Civilian governments in Pakistan have a history of being slow to react in such situations. In this case, the Islamabad high Court ordered the government to take action and clear the public roads.

  • Protesters burn tires during a protest in Peshawar on November 25, 2017.

    Pakistan paralyzed by Islamist protests

    Protests are 'highly disturbing'

    Foreign analysts have described the success of the protest as 'highly disturbing' as it demonstrates 'the clout and impunity' enjoyed by religious hardliners in Pakistan. The military is yet to respond to the government's call for help. However, any military intervention is fraught in Pakistan, which has seen multiple coups in its 70-year history.

    Author: Aasim Saleem

Many Islamic groups in Pakistan are against parliamentary democracy and want it replaced by the Islamic Shariah model.

Since November 8, the Tehreek-i-Labaik party's followers have blocked a main motorway interchange that connects Islamabad to Rawalpindi, causing severe traffic jams and inconvenience to the capital's residents. Fearing the hardliners could storm government offices in Islamabad, the authorities, too, sealed off several roads, which worsened the traffic situation.

Usman Azam, an Islamabad resident, told DW the blockade was causing problems for citizens.

"Protest is the fundamental right of every citizen, but these protesters should not put the city under siege," Azam told DW.

The main demand of the protesters is that Law Minister Zahid Hamid resign from his post, as by tampering with the oath, they claim, he has committed blasphemy.

"We will not unblock the roads and keep Islamabad under siege until our demands are met," Alvi said.

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Christians living in fear in Pakistan

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Christians living in fear in Pakistan

Blasphemy 'politics'

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Rights groups say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious groups oppose any change to blasphemy law and consider it necessary for Pakistan's Islamic identity. Blasphemy allegations have often led to violent riots and vigilante justice in the country.

Read more: Asia Bibi's appeal against death penalty - A test case for Pakistan

The ruling Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is already under pressure from the judiciary after Sharif was ousted on corruption charges in July. While opposition politician Imran Khan is demanding early elections, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan party, has also seen his popularity rise in the past few months.

In September, Rizvi entered mainstream politics and, to the surprise of political observers, won more than 7,000 votes in a Lahore by-election for the seat vacated by Sharif.

Experts say that the protection of blasphemy law is central to the Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan party's political agenda. The outfit vows to continue the legacy of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in February 2016 for murdering Salman Taseer, a governor of Pakistan's eastern Punjab province. Qadri shot Taseer 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, and was sentenced to death in October the same year. Qadri said he had murdered the former governor for his efforts to amend the country's blasphemy laws.

"We will not return [from Islamabad] until certain members of parliament tender their resignations," Qari Sarfraz Ahmed Rizvi, a protester, told DW earlier this month.

> Watch video 03:49


#JusticeForMashal: Speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws | Follow the Hashtag

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#JusticeForMashal: Speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws | Follow the Hashtag

Bowing to pressure

The government initially did not want to use force against the protesters. Senator Raja Muhammad Zafar Ul Haq, the leader of the ruling party in the upper house of parliament, told DW he hoped the standoff would be resolved through negotiations.

But Haq said the law minister and other members of parliament were unlikely to step down.

"We can't punish the entire parliament that worked on the reforms bill," he added.

Fatima Atif, an Islamabad-based activist and liberal analyst, says the government is powerless when it comes to confronting Islamic groups.

"The ruling party is already in hot water because of its conflict with the military establishment. Even if the government wants to confront the protesters, it lacks the political power to do that," she told DW.

  • Ramadan Armenspeisung Pakistan (Imago)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    Harsh penalties

    In Pakistan, it is illegal to drink, eat or even smoke in public during Ramadan. You can be sent to jail, heavily fined, or may even be beaten by vigilantes. Earlier this month, the country's lawmakers introduced stricter penalties that could see people jailed for up to three months for a violation.

  • Pakistan Bakhtawar Zardari (picture-alliance/dpa/N. Ul Haq)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    'This is not Islam'

    Bakhtawar Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was quick to condemn the latest amendment, dubbing the law "ridiculous." "Not everyone in Pakistan will be fasting - children in school, the elderly, people with medical issues - Should we arrest them for drinking water?" tweeted Bhutto. "People are going to die from heat stroke and dehydration with this ridiculous law."

  • Ramadan Armenspeisung Pakistan (Imago)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    Obliged to fast

    "A person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall not eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan," says the Ehtiram-e-Ramadan (Respect for Ramadan) law, which was introduced by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1981.

  • Pakistan Rote Moschee Islamabad 2009 (Getty Images/AFP/A. Qureshi)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    Austerity and peity

    Theologically, Ramadan is about austerity. It teaches Muslims to be pious, to stay away from evil, to fast during the day, and to donate money to the poor. "Zakat" (which means alms-giving in Arabic) is an Islamic tradition in which Muslims give part of their earnings to those in need, particularly during this holy month.

  • Hitzewelle in Pakistan fordert zahlreiche Opfer (Getty Images/AFP/A. Hassan)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    Unbearably hot weather

    The Islamic month of Ramadan coincides with sweltering temperatures in most Muslim-majority countries. In 2015, a brutal heat wave killed over 1,250 people in Pakistan - many of them died of dehydration while fasting. Even then, the government did not relax the 36-year-old law. Some clerics did, however, say it was permissible to break the Ramadan fast for health reasons.

  • Hitzewelle in Pakistan fordert zahlreiche Opfer (Getty Images/AFP/F. Naeem)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    No respite

    Nearly all restaurants are closed from fajr (dawn) until maghreb (dusk), and shopkeepers only sell takeaway food items. If you are hungry or thirsty the only place for you is home. At offices - both public and private - you are not allowed to eat.

  • Pakistan Proteste gegen Hinrichtung von Mumtaz Qadri (Reuters/F. Mahmood)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism

    Rising religious extremism

    With the war in Afghanistan and growth of Islamist organizations such as the Taliban in the region, things have taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. Religious extremism and intolerance are on the rise in the South Asian Islamic country. At the same time, Ramadan is also an opportunity for extremist and militant outfits to rake in cash through charity donations.

  • Pakistan Proteste nach Mord an Mashal Khan (Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan)

    Forced piety - Pakistan's Ramadan law and vigilantism


    Incidents of religious vigilantism have spiked in the past few years, with fanatic mobs trying to enforce their own version of Shariah. A number of people have been lynched on unproven accusations of blasphemy. Observers say the existence of various Islamic laws has emboldened radicals to take matters into their own hands and dole out "justice" to what they deem un-Islamic. (shs)

Pakistan's credibility

Pakistan's liberal analysts and activists say the government shouldn't concede more political space to Islamists than they already have.

Tauseef Ahmed, a former professor at an Islamabad-based university, believes the "mainstreaming of jihadi outfits" in Pakistan could harm the country's international reputation further.

"The military establishment is dividing Pakistani society along religious and sectarian lines. This policy has harmed the country. The generals do not realize that the international community is observing the situation," Ahmed told DW.

"By mainstreaming such groups, Pakistan has put all its credibility at stake. Why should the international community accept our claims that we are fighting extremists?" Ahmed said.

But Islamic groups say the country's constitution allows them to take part in politics, contest elections and oppose laws that they deem "un-Islamic."

> Watch video 01:52


'Sharing experiences vital for activists'

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